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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Rerunning The 'Experts' At Crisis Time

November 28, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

News in triplicate.

Thanks to Reagan's present troubles, past and present government medium-to-big shots are in big media demand regardless of their TV presence.

David Gergen has no charisma, for example. This is a TV star? The former White House communications director under President Reagan talks in a soft monotone and is so low key that calling him stolid makes him sound more exciting than he is. Brick walls are more expressive. Muzak is noisier.

No matter. On Wednesday morning, you could have caught him on CNN being interviewed live about the Reagan Administration's foreign policy scandal at the very time "The CBS Morning News" had him on videotape discussing the same subject. And that night, Gergen also was tabbed for CNN's "Larry King Live" along with Rep. Samuel Gejdenson (D-Conn.), a House Foreign Affairs Committee member who himself was simultaneously available via videotape on public TV's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."

What's going on here?

Business as usual, that's what. On breaking stories, the media--particularly TV--break out the same portable experts. It's musical-guests time. Or if this were a game show, you'd call it "Wheel of Guests." Spin the wheel and Henry Kissinger lands on ABC. Spin it again and he lands on CBS. No wonder that network newscasts and morning shows tend to look and sound alike especially when a major story is unfolding.

That's the case when the topics are hostage taking or other terrorist acts. Suddenly, the same "terrorism experts" surface everywhere and TV mimics itself.

Ditto this week's disclosure by Reagan and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III that a National Security Council official allegedly diverted money from controversial Iran arms sales to anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua.

How to cover the story on TV? The cliche still applies: Round up the usual suspects. Dust off the roster of talking heavyweights.

You know the names: Former Secretaries of State Kissinger and Alexander M. Haig Jr. former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard V. Allen, former CIA director Stansfield Turner and so on and so on. The buttons were there for the pushing.

It was Haig/Brzezinski on Tuesday's "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour" and Haig/Kissinger on Tuesday's "Nightline" and Haig alone on NBC's "Today" and Kissinger alone on "The CBS Morning News" and Brzezinski alone on ABC's "Good Morning America" and Turner and Allen on NBC's "Today" and Allen alone on CNN's "Crossfire."

The odd name also crept in. Wolf Blitzer, Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, made at least four appearances on national TV Wednesday as a sit-down interview guest discussing Israel's alleged connection to the arms deal. TV's first Blitzer blitz.

Although TV's stage is always up for grabs, there's no evidence that any of the above former government officials pushed themselves on TV this time around. They didn't have to.

"We've all been trained to do the same thing," "Today" executive producer Steve Friedman said Wednesday about himself and his fellow journalists. "If it is something to do with the National Security Council, we go for Alexander Haig. And you go for senators who make a difference. So you go for a Sam Nunn (the Georgia Democrat expected to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) or a Dave Durenberger (the Minnesota Republican heading the Senate Intelligence Committee)."

It may be a seller's market this week, but the networks say they don't pay fees to in-studio guests interviewed for news stories. Non-staff guests, that is.

Kissinger, for example, has had a continuous paid-TV gig for years. He's been a salaried consultant for ABC since 1982--that means only that ABC gets first crack at him before he's available to competitors--and he was a paid consultant for NBC before that.

"There are also some people you might sign up (for the short term), like for the Summit or for a year or something like that," Friedman said. "Malcolm Toon (former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union) is on a retainer at NBC. Stansfield Turner used to be, but he isn't anymore, although we still used him today."

CNN has on a retainer Joseph Sisco, an undersecretary of state under President Ford, and used him a lot this week. It also pays a retainer to Michael Vlahos, an international affairs expert from Johns Hopkins University.

Those mustered by networks to comment on breaking stories are basically the gray-suited, gray-talking crowd. That's because networks are mainstreamers. Hence, sameness.

"I know for a fact that I cannot be on American TV because of my views," MIT professor Noam Chomsky contended by phone from his Cambridge, Mass., office. A noted philosophy and linguistics scholar with leftish views, Chomsky says he is frequently interviewed by foreign media, but shunned by U.S. television.

"This is a fanatically ideological society, more so than any other society," said Chomsky. "It shows up in the narrowness of people that can appear on the medium."

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